A cage of his own for rational man

Recently a South African bandit decided a good place to hide from security guards was the Bengal tiger’s enclosure in the zoo. I wish my friend and colleague Dan Gardner had been there to see it before homo economicus, the rational individual of economic analysis, wandered into his cubicle and was equally messily devoured. On Jan. 13 on these pages, Dan explained how to fight crime. Or rather, how not to. He scorned Stephen Harper and “the dustier economics faculties” as well as “policy wonks in neo-conservative think tanks” for “clinging” to the theory that you can deter crime by making it riskier. You see, “only old-fashioned economists still believe in the myth of homo economicus. For many decades, psychologists and other researchers have been exploring how human brains really work.” And they say while we are capable of slow, careful reasoning, “a whole lot of people’s thinking is done with the intuitive system” which, Dan tells us, “can be very useful... But it is irrational.”

I could write volumes on the exploded superstition of substituting social science for common sense. I could remind you experts are more help in understanding the reasoning behind a given point of view than at deciding between points of view, that they do not all say one thing and when most of them do it is time to beware. They told us deficit spending was good for the economy and we should dissolve the family in the interest of the children. Instead, let us return to the mortal remains of that thief.

(Yes, I know there’s an election on. It doesn’t mean we can’t discuss issues. I say give the Tories 133 seats, the Liberals 89, the Bloc 52, the NDP 33 and one Independent. I’ll tell you how I knew and what it means afterward; if it doesn’t happen, that was a typo. Meanwhile, please vote.)

I concede that we might despair of reasoning with someone who would flee from humans toward tigers. But his grisly fate should not obscure an even more fundamental point. By trying to evade capture he proved he was deterred by negative consequences. He judged them badly. But homo economicus stupidus is a branch of homo economicus. Moreover to suggest that intuition is “irrational” is far too strong, as a summary of economists’ work or a description of everyday life. Our intuition is not infallible; but neither is our digestion and it doesn’t prove we don’t eat.

Indeed, our intuition often works better than our formal reason. When a woman won’t date a guy because he creeps her out, shall we say laboratory tests negate the validity of this character-evaluation process? Perhaps. But not to her over dinner. And if we are to reject the notion of people as rationally self-interested, what model of human nature can we put in its place? Even kinder, gentler crime-fighting schemes like community drop-in centres rely on the notion that if you offer criminals something better to do than burglary, they will rationally choose it.

Sociologists must say people respond predictably to incentives or there would be no science of sociology. (Quiet in the cheap seats.) But predictably need not mean rationally. Perhaps people are automatons, who respond unreflectively to stimuli like plants growing toward sunlight. Hence the social scientists’ project of perfecting man by boosting his self-esteem. Give us a sufficient source of psychological warmth and we will not only flourish but automatically grow toward it, wherever it is placed. It didn’t work. Speaking only of crime, those who exaggerate their own cleverness chronically underestimate the chance of being caught, which is bad for them and for us.

Most recent Nobel Prize winners in economics would be astounded to hear funeral obsequies pronounced over homo economicus. Especially given how crime rises once the people in charge become too sophisticated for deterrence theory. Like Canada’s Liberals or Britain’s New Labour. As OpinionJournal’s James Taranto has chronicled, sophisticated commentators call it ironic that in the U.S. the prison population is up yet crime is down, almost as if stiff sentences deter some crimes and physically prevent others.

I don’t deny that criminals are frequently appalling boobs. But being dumb doesn’t make them irrational. It just means deterring them requires making the negative consequences of crime easier, not harder, to understand. The exact opposite of “enlightened” policy.

At the end of his urbane fulminations, Dan suddenly declares that “Criminologists... have reached a rough consensus.... criminals can be deterred by increasing the risk of getting caught. But they cannot be deterred by making punishments tougher.” Deterred by risk? Gad, is that homo economicus glaring at me through the bars? I do concede Dan’s point that it’s hard to increase the risk of getting caught. But no one said the job was going to be easy. And you won’t scare criminals by convincing them they’ll be caught, then let off. You need to convince them they’ll probably be caught and punished. Just like we rubes thought all along.

The simple truth is crooks are short-sighted. They respond to incentives badly, but they do respond to them. Even the ones so dumb they’d hide in a tiger’s belly.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson